As one grows older, one forgets what happened last week or last month. But memories from one’s youth stay for ever. I can see, as I write, Alvin Kallicharan trying to on-drive Bishan Bedi in the Delhi Test of 1974. He gets a leading edge, and, as the ball balloons up into the off-side, I hear the bowler shout: ‘Brijesh!’, the urgency of the plea carried through the air to where I sit, at the top of the Ferozeshah Kotla’s aam aadmi stand.
In that Indian side of 1974 there were five men who could reliably catch a cricket ball. Four were close to the bat: Engineer behind the stumps, Venkataraghavan at slip, and Solkar and Abid Ali in the leg trap. Of the seven in the outfield, six were fine cricketers, but hopeless fielders. Hence that desperate cry from Bedi, calling upon Brijesh Patel alone to go for the catch.
Another moment from later in that innings was equally revealing. Prasanna was being repeatedly swept off the stumps by the hard-hitting all-rounder Keith Boyce. After Boyce had struck several boundaries, the bowler replaced the man at square leg with Brijesh Patel. Since they played for the same state side, Prasanna knew even better than Bedi how reliable Patel was in the field. At length, he deceived Boyce in the flight, the top edge safely held by Patel on the leg boundary.
In the uneven fielding skills of its members, the Indian team of 1974 was entirely in character. Diving to one’s right or left to take a catch, or throwing a ball fast and straight into the keeper’s gloves from the boundary’s edge, were not talents Indians were known to possess or cultivate.
To be sure, there was the odd exception. In the 1930s, we had the Malaysian-born Sikh, Lall Singh, who was outstanding in the covers. In the 1950s, Polly Umrigar was very safe at slip or short leg. His junior contemporary Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was fleet of foot and had a superb throwing arm.
The Indian side of the 1970s could call upon some outstanding close catchers; among them Eknath Solkar, arguably the greatest short-leg in the history of the game, fielding without a helmet and even without shin guards. In the 1980s, Kapil Dev was a fine outfielder and a decent slip. In the 1990s we had Azharuddin, dazzlingly brilliant wherever his captain placed him.
But the odd Pataudi or Azhar notwithstanding, Indian sides on the whole were marked by abysmally poor fielding. So long as you knew how to bat or bowl well, it did not matter whether you also knew to stop or catch a cricket ball. Many of our best batsmen, and most of our finest bowlers, were unfit and overweight. One couldn’t trust them at slip; far safer to keep them at mid on or mid off, and watch them amiably trot behind the ball to the boundary.
The few fine fielders we had in the past were natural athletes. God, or their own genes, had given them quick reflexes, speed on the ground, and decent hand-eye co-ordination. But Indian cricketers saw no need to improve their fielding skills. It was either given to them to be good at it, or it was not. In any case, one could not safeguard one’s place in the side if one fielded well, or lose it if one fielded poorly. What kept you in, or kept you out, was the runs you scored or the wickets you took. However good he was in the field, Brijesh Patel could not hold down a regular place because he did not contribute enough with the bat.
This may be changing. Now, the ability to run quickly, to dive to stop a boundary, to hold low edges at slip or wicked skiers in the outfield, to throw and hit the stumps from distances short or long — these skills, always so highly prized by Australians and South Africans, are, finally, being appreciated by Indians as well.
A turning point in this respect was the Johannesburg Test of 2013. South Africa, chasing a target of 458, fell short only because their two best batsmen, Smith and Du Plessis, were both brilliantly run out by Ajinkya Rahane. As I spontaneously tweeted at the time: ‘A Bombay batsman saves India — with his fielding’. Rahane may never be in the same league as Merchant, Manjrekar, Gavaskar or Tendulkar with the bat. But then they were not remotely in the same league as him in the field.
In the past, whenever India won a Test or series or one-day tournament, our fielding played a marginal role. The World Cup winning side of 2011 had four major liabilities in the field: Tendulkar and Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel. But no one cared, not the fans, and certainly not the selectors. So long as the first pair scored runs, or the second pair took wickets or bowled economically, it was enough.
This column will appear just as the knock-out stage of the 2015 World Cup commences. It is too early to say who will win. But not too soon to claim that this may be the best Indian fielding side ever. Four men — Kohli, Jadeja, Rahane, and Raina — are outstanding. But all the others can run fast, throw accurately, and catch safely too.
As spin bowlers, Ashwin and Jadeja cannot hold a candle to Prasanna and Bedi. Yet in one respect they are far luckier. If a ball is skied off either spinner, there is no need for them to single out a fielder by name. They can trust any of their team-mates to catch the ball.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed by the author are personal